You may have thought “Greenberg,” Noah Baumbach’s latest film starring Ben Stiller, was just another movie about a man-child character having a mid-life crisis. From previews, it may have appeared that this titular schlemiel spends the film’s two-hour duration drifting angrily through a world of privilege, spouting sarcastic asides to everyone around him and ultimately being given a shot at redemption via the arrival of a manic pixie dream girl who opens his heart.
But let this excerpt from a right-wing “Christian Movie Review” of “Greenberg” cause you to give the film a second shot:
the pagan, feminist, pro-abortion worldview in GREENBERG, mixed with the movie’s strong foul language, sexual content and nudity, leads to an abhorrent result….[shows] how much radical, pro-abortion feminism has perverted and emasculated the male species in America.
Now you kind of want to purchase tickets, don’t you?
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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And you should. Greenberg indeed flirts and plays with all the clichés found in the parade of dude-centric movies we’ve been seeing too much of recently. It features a narcissistic, curmudgeonly, yet hilarious protagonist, Roger Greenberg, and his interactions with a much younger, rather flighty, but ultimately warm love interest, a singer named Florence. Suffering from low self-esteem, the quirky Florence seems to welcome his lashing-out-at-everyone behavior, even when it’s aimed at her. The two come together in a story arc about how a man imprisoned by his neuroses begins to let go. But “Greenberg” skirts danger and fails to tumble into the highly-populated abyss of indie-aesthetic films that reek of sexism. This is mostly due to the deeply human way writer-director Baumbach treats his characters, the stellar acting from Stiller and Greta Gerwig, and the way Florence’s abortion is handled.
That’s right. “Greenberg” features one of the most mainstream, unremarkable, lengthy and prominent abortion scenes since “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (in fact, there’s a marked similarity) and it does something no film has ever done as effectively: it mines abortion for humor. In fact, the aftermath of the abortion scene is one of the funniest, and most poignant, in the entire film. It would be wrong to give it away, but let’s say it involves our male protagonist’s extremely misguided attempt to buy an appropriate post-abortion gift for Florence, who has elected to undergo anesthesia for her D&C procedure and wakes up rather groggy.
Interestingly, the word “abortion” is never uttered in the film, but there’s also no stigma attached to the procedure. Not only does Greenberg trot along to the clinic with Florence, but he brings his former bandmate too, and neither seem the least nonplussed. The abortion facility is clean, the nurse is kind, and aside from being tired and woozy from the anesthesia, Florence is fine. She admits, lying in the hospital bed, that she doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life. Still, her abortion is treated not as a punishment but as a part of a character arc that teaches her to change course and to actually protect herself more–thus the Fast Times at Ridgemont High comparison.
Florence is a fully-fleshed out character, which is made obvious from the fact that the movie, though called “Greenberg” begins with a long section showing Florence’s daily life before Roger arrives in town. The film is worth seeing for these first few minutes alone, in which we watch Florence drive from home to her job as a personal assistant to Roger’s wealthy, arrogant brother and his privileged family. The camera zooms on on her face, with no makeup, stringy hair and blemishes and it stays there for a long time. The sequence is viscerally shocking in a medium where women are airbrushed and glammed up, and it’s also instantly endearing.
We learn that Florence is a a young woman who compulsively lives in the moment and has her arms extended to embrace the world, but she also suffers from an inability to stick up for herself. Her day job being snapped at and commanded by a wealthy family, and her interest in Roger despite his nasty streak of misanthropy indicate that she is too comfortable being imposed on. She has been sleeping with strangers since she broke up with her ex, but the pregnancy is revealed to have begun when she was still dating this unnamed guy. She mournfully tells Greenberg that there’s no way he‘s responsible for the unintended pregnancy, because “you used a condom.” Presumably, the ex-boyfriend didn’t.
As for the male character, Greenberg’s “redemption” is slight and gradual. We’re not bludgeoned with the idea that this piece-of-work guy is really good at heart. At the end, when he cancels spontaneous plans, picks Florence up from the clinic, and sits with her while she listens to his long, drunken phone message, we’re not sure whether he’s going to actually change for good or immediately revert to type. We just see that he’s finally trying. He finally wants to think of other people beyond himself.
“Greenberg” isn’t a perfect film. It’s a little on the lengthy side for its subject matter and it exists in a moneyed, artsy L.A. world that’s unfamiliar to most Americans. However it’s worth seeing for the way it quietly, wryly, triumphantly obliterates so many clichés of the movie industry’s usual treatment of female characters.